By Roilui Sin
Feeling like an imposter is not new to me as a graduate student. I have felt it since childhood. I am the youngest of two, my parents had emigrated from China in the early 70s – first to Brazil and then settling in Canada in 1985 when I was a toddler. Growing up, I felt like an outsider, needing to fit in and protect myself from being revealed as a “phony” Canadian.
Before university, I was a successful student, confident in my abilities and accomplishments. I worked hard, felt rewarded. Entering university, I began feeling my achievement lacking, unmatched against my tireless efforts. My grades were not reflecting my dedication and school became incredibly difficult. I spiraled quickly down in confidence and self-esteem.
I have written papers that got positive feedback and presented at numerous conferences, but I am still not convinced I have proven my worth. Lately, the inkling of guilt and shame from possibly being a fraud has been subtle but nevertheless debilitating – affecting me in ways that are hard to catch. I find myself stressed about my deadlines, but also escaping my work.
There is a fear inside of me that I don’t know enough. And it will show in the work I produce. It is a fear to start, a fear to dive into it, and a fear to continue. Rationally thinking outside of these feelings, I know that this is not true. I can remember occasions where I was confident about my work – but they seem few and far between when the fear takes over. When I encounter someone who might know more about my research area than myself, I often shut down and shell-up.
I am also a full-time public school teacher by day, and these feelings seep into my work life as much as they do in my student life. I have been teaching for over a decade, but still every day before and after the bells my mind lists off things I should be better at, mistakes I’ve made or things I have yet to get done. I get the feeling that I am shorting my students by not doing enough and not moving faster. I worry often that my class isn’t getting the best I have to offer and that my best is not enough for them. Ironically enough, often this class of 4-year olds constantly remind me to take things less seriously and to laugh more.
Guilt and shame have woven into a common thread in my life permeating through many aspects of daily living. This thread, with its roots in unrealistic and perfectionistic goals, may have begun with fitting in as a child and achieving academic accomplishments as a student, but now manifests itself even in spaces where I search for solace. Its grip is so strong. Guilt and shame that I am not doing well enough, then guilt and shame that I am pretending to be ok with it. The presence of this intricate thread burdens my mind to believe that there is no respite for me in my many attempts to find peace.
I am in the middle of figuring myself out on this journey. I know how it feels to burn out from these stresses and feelings. My darkest hardest times were during my Masters. I wanted to give up on everything until a good friend pushed me into a mindfulness class his sister was teaching. This changed my life’s trajectory completely. Since then I’ve had several moments of clarity where I have interrupted my negative thought cycles and replaced it with ‘more gentle towards myself’ goals.
I continue to fail again and again, but each time I pick myself back up and I know I am stronger. I can now see my setbacks as opportunities to learn even more about my true inner being. I meditate, offer myself compassion and the space to learn with a beginner’s mind, and every single day I strive to remind myself that “I am enough”. That I am smart enough and accomplished enough by my own merit and not luck.
Overcoming these feelings will require healing. Years of damage have been done to my body as I pushed my mind to its limit. I don’t yet have calmness and serenity down to an art, but I’ve learned that inner peace is not a summit to be reached. In my mindfulness practice I often recall the wise words of a teacher: “Like the North Star, inner peace is something that we can see and follow even though we may never arrive there”. And along the way there are reminders everywhere and every day that I’m on the right track – when I am good to my body…when I feel gratitude for the Earth…when I stop for a moment to take a fully present breath.
And throughout this, I have realized that I am resilient. Each day I see that I am still here, that I have survived all the days before it, and that I will be ok. All the guilt and shame I experience will not stop me from trying to live fully and happily, to appreciate and enjoy all the perks of being uniquely human.
To do this I need my health – so I am committed to trying to take life more slowly and less seriously while also aiming to eat healthy, exercise and sleep well. These days I’m learning to shift my priorities to look out for myself without feeling bad about it.
Sharing my story through writing and conversations and joining mental wellness groups on campus and community helps me tremendously. It gives me the courage to face my shame and resist it. It has lessened my worry of being judged and rejected. Even though this nagging thread of guilt and shame pulls at me on most days, I am optimistic about finding the capacity in me to heal and to transform.
Roilui Sin is a 4th year PhD student in Educational Leadership and Policy at Ontario Institute of Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto. Her research involves mental health and educational policy. She is also a full-time special education teacher for the Toronto District School Board. She is passionate about teaching, engaging learners, and bringing communities together in educational issues. She is also committed to living more mindfully and helping others to do the same.